- The Chorus (2004) movie review: Officially “inspired” by the 1945 drama A Cage of Nightingales – while also owing much to later fare like To Sir with Love and Dead Poets Society – Christophe Barratier’s feature debut is a shamelessly sentimental crowd pleaser.
- The Chorus was shortlisted for two Academy Awards: Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Song (“Look To Your Path / Vois Sur Ton Chemin,” by Christophe Barratier and Bruno Coulais).
The Chorus movie review: Newcomer Christophe Barratier has come up with an old-fashioned + syrupy commercial hit
A gigantic hit in France, Christophe Barratier’s feature film debut, The Chorus / Les choristes, is the most recent cinematic incarnation of the age-old story about a dedicated teacher who, through firmness, kindness, and understanding – mostly the latter two – tames the savage hearts of his/her pupils.
As an added heart-tugging bonus, the boarding-school teacher in The Chorus (played by Gérard Jugnot) brings some soul-healing music into the lives of his charges. And what a difference that makes!
Not coincidentally, the teacher in question is reminiscent of the one actor/co-screenwriter Noël-Noël brought to life nearly six decades ago in Jean Dréville’s A Cage of Nightingales / La cage aux rossignols, as The Chorus is to some extent a reboot – with the action changed from the early 1930s to the late 1940s – of the real-life-inspired and Best Original Story Academy Award-nominated drama (which itself shares elements with Leo McCarey’s 1944 Hollywood blockbuster Going My Way).
And that’s how 21st-century audiences – hungry for a large serving of cotton-candy cinema drenched in syrup and sprinkled with powdered sugar – have been able to enjoy watching the power of choir singing save a rowdy bunch of prospective mobsters, corrupt politicians, and serial killers.
The Chorus begins with two middle-aged men – the renowned French conductor Pierre Morhange (Jacques Perrin, who also co-produced the film) and an old friend, Pépinot (Didier Flamand) – as they’re brought together by the death of their former music teacher. Before you can say “flashback,” they start reminiscing about their days at a rural boarding school for boys.
In 1949, unemployed music teacher Clément Mathieu arrives at the strangely named school Fond de l’Étang (“Bottom of the Pond”) to work as a teacher-cum-supervisor. The students are a pack of quasi-murderous hooligans who, according to the school’s strict disciplinarian headmaster Rachin (François Berléand), will behave themselves only if they’re either beaten with a stick or put in solitary confinement. Preferably, both.
Mathieu, however, has different ideas. Although he has been warned that the boys are monsters who just happen to look like human beings, he takes a liking to them, becoming particularly fond of the gifted, angelic-looking Pierre (Les Petits Chanteurs de Saint-Marc choir singer Jean-Baptiste Maunier) and the young orphan Pépinot (Maxence Perrin, Jacques Perrin’s real-life son), who every weekend waits in vain at the school gate for a visit from his parents.
Once he starts teaching the boys to sing, Mathieu finds himself mesmerized by Pierre’s heavenly voice. The boys, for their part, learn to trust and respect their teacher.
Inevitably, problems arise when Rachin begins to feel threatened by Mathieu’s success, while a singularly troublesome youth arrives at the school.
Essential elements missing
For treacle like this to – at least partially – work, one of several elements must be present. For instance:
- A screenplay featuring humor/wit and/or pathos, such as Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s for John Schlesinger’s more personalized Madame Sousatzka, in which Shirley MacLaine stars as a private tutor.
- One or more top-notch performances; examples include MacLaine as the tutorial Madame and Meryl Streep as real-life violin teacher Roberta Guaspari in Wes Craven’s Music of the Heart.
- The right directorial touch; e.g., Tay Garnett’s in the charmingly nostalgic Cheers for Miss Bishop, starring a pitch-perfect Martha Scott.
- A singing/crying Lulu as seen/heard (“But how do you thank someone who has taken you from crayons to perfume…”) in James Clavell’s To Sir with Love, with a bad karma’ed Sidney Poitier (see Blackboard Jungle) teaching social etiquette to lowlives at an East London school.
‘Au prof, avec amour’
Regrettably, Shirley MacLaine, Meryl Streep, Martha Scott, and Lulu are nowhere to be seen or heard in The Chorus.
Though schooled veterans (no pun intended), neither Gérard Jugnot nor François Berléand brings that “something extra” to their roles, while Barratier’s direction and screenplay – co-written with Philippe Lopes-Curval – proudly replace wit and pathos with juvenile antics and bathos.
And that’s why this musicalized Au prof, avec amour will appeal only to those who like their movies dripping with schmaltz.
Now, considering The Chorus’ blockbuster status in a number of countries, there are millions of such filmgoers out there. These certainly will not be disappointed. If you’re one of them, just make sure to check your blood-sugar level once the final credits start rolling.
The Chorus / Les choristes (2004)
Director: Christophe Barratier.
Screenplay: Christophe Barratier & Philippe Lopes-Curval.
Inspired by the 1945 motion picture A Cage of Nightingales / La cage aux rossignols, written by Georges Chaperot (story), Noël-Noël, and René Wheeler.
Cast: Gérard Jugnot. François Berléand. Jean-Baptiste Maunier. Kad Merad. Marie Bunel. Jacques Perrin. Maxence Perrin. Didier Flamand.
“The Chorus Movie (2004) Review” notes
Highest-paid French actor
 According to Jean-Yves Guérin and Léna Lutaud’s Figaro Enterprises article “L’Argent des Acteurs,” The Chorus movie actor and associate producer Gérard Jugnot earned €5.45 million (approx. $6.8 million) in 2004, making him the highest-paid French actor that year. (Jean Reno was the runner-up.) A large chunk of that money came from Jugnot’s participation in The Chorus.
As per L’Express, as a result of several contractual agreements Jugnot will have to wait about 10 years to receive the total amount of his earnings.
“The Chorus Movie” endnotes
In addition to its Oscar nods, The Chorus was shortlisted for eight Prix César, including Best Film (it topped Best Score and Best Sound); three BAFTAs, including Best Film not in the English Language; and three European Film Awards, including Best Film (it topped Best Score).
Gérard Jugnot and Jean-Baptiste Maunier The Chorus movie images: Pathé Distribution.
“The Chorus Movie: Unabashedly Saccharine Heartstring Tugger” last updated in September 2021.